Ihsahn : Ihsahn

Ihsahn Ihsahn review

Growth, for some artists, comes in small adjustments over time, an accumulation of a lifetime of tweaks and refinements that, retrospectively, provide a great riddle for critics to parse when, where and how precisely the eruptive moments of their careers occur. Other artists are far kinder to our type, making their organic process much more obvious, oscillating through cycles of fragmented experimentation and resolidification, a kind of surveying of lessons learned before a repetition of the cycle.

Ihsahn is of the latter type. It is hard to argue otherwise, expanding as he has from being bandleader of black metal innovators Emperor, who provided the groundwork for everything from symphonic to progressive black metal, on to the dual set of EPs he released just before this most recent record which saw him covering Lenny Kravitz, Iron Maiden, Portishead and a-ha. Most obviously, his last full record in his traditional style that he has built over the course of his solo career, a keening mixture of extreme and progressive metal not devoid, as his fellow former-black metallers in Ulver, of a good dose of synth-heavy pop and orchestral flair, would be 2016’s Arktis, a record built on the little-C concept of coldness and abandonment, recurring motifs in his very Nietzschean work. But a keen ear might find fault in this supposition, seeing a reliance on pop and even smoother jazz and soft rock ideas as, while satisfyingly played, certainly a bit out of the norm for him. A more solid position would place his last record firmly entrenched in his defined style, lacking extraneous experimentation, in 2012’s Eremita, befittingly decked with art of Nietzsche’s inverted face on its cover, coming at this point over a decade ago.

Which is all a way to say that the new record, returning to that central sonic conceit of his solo project, that being a fusion of the dramaticisms of progressive and symphonic music with an underlying bed of heavy and blackened extreme metal, finally returns to the forefront here. That said, it is hard to imagine that this new self-titled record will suddenly be the one to turn the ship around for listeners and critics alike who are suspicious of the directions Ihsahn’s post-Emperor career has taken. Prior to the release of this record, there was a great amount of discussion from him likening it to a proper return to black metal; this is not so. There would be no doubt, I believe, in any listener within moments of more or less any track playing that his interests lie more in prog than black metal proper these days. That said, the lineage connecting this album back to early works by Emperor such as Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is likewise just as apparent as its deep reliance on prog. Similar to Opeth’s evolution overtime accidentally revealing which listeners through the years seemed to really get the central conceit of a project, Ihsahn’s work here and its coded gestures back to the hallmarks of his long career seem to confirm that music of this sort was always in the cards and that, while many of us may rightly adore those cold and blackened extreme prog records from his days in spiked armor, we may have been fools to imagine a return to them likely.

The album notably comes in two forms, one being purely orchestral versions of the material while the other version features Ihsahn playing along with the orchestra on every instrument save drums, plus some additional violin and percussion by others. Per his words, both records are meant to stand on their own as opposing views of the same material; in truth, it is hard to hear the orchestral versions of these works and not immediately want to hear the guitar and vocal work he produced for it. This is not necessarily a knock to the quality of the orchestral arrangements which, on the full-band version of the album, give it a grandiosity and sense of drama that, for fans of this style of progressive rock and metal, will find it ranking among the best releases of the year, if perhaps turning off people uninterested in that type of music.

However, Ihsahn still seems to find himself, like many composers making a shift to more orchestral work, accidentally depriving the orchestra of melodic or rhythmic statements as forceful and as catching as those given to the vocals, the guitars, and the drum kit here. Technically this exceedingly minor error, more one that arises from thinking of the full band arrangement as primary, puts him in good company, and ending the day with one brilliant record of a style and a second merely good one is not a bad place to land. Perhaps more time spent with the orchestral version apart from the complete band approach might reveal hidden charms, but it feels unlikely most will explore them given the vast difference in emotionality between the two.

It is a delight in a certain way that it is the great reliance on the backing orchestra on even the full band variant of the record’s material that robs it of its black metal thunder, replacing it with something more akin to theater. There is a nearly Disney affect to the work, albeit one accompanied by heavy riffs, shrieking and blast beats. There is a concept, but it lands somewhere between the unintelligibility of this style and the recurring motifs of terror and isolation in a solitary wanderer that Ihsahn has been exploring since his career’s beginning.

Records like this make me really fucking glad we don’t grade records here: it is at once perhaps the ultimate culmination of his work thus far, a defining document of what makes his mind and his ear precisely work, explaining in one stroke why he’s come to collaborate with members of progressive metal artists like Devin Townsend and Leprous as often as he has, while also feeling fully, almost sociopathically agnostic toward ears not already accustomed to what he does. I love it; it feels like peels of thunder and the cold sneering solemnity of something half-mad, feral and mountainborn, which gives itself fully over to itself and itself alone, defined by no force beyond itself. But this is precisely what can make prog feel, well, a bit goofy to so many. There is self-seriousness here even amongst the clearly humorous passages of music resembling 1920s jazz, and whether serious or not some of those musical dalliances may prove too much for certain listeners looking for something, well, hipper. For those great initiates of the world of progressive metal, however, this will prove an enduring delight.

Label: Candlelight

Year: 2024

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